From the moment Kevin Garnett arrived in Boston this summer, there came with him a seismic shift of momentum to the East. Suddenly, there was star power under those dusty old championship banners again. There were possibilities again.
Along with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Garnett makes the Boston Celtics the darlings of the preseason, a lottery loser transformed into an overnight contender. Across the Eastern Conference landscape, there are so many questions to be asked on the way to opening night and beyond. Here's a starting five.
1. Has Stephon Marbury lost his mind?
As much as any team in the East, the dysfunctional New York Knicks need a point guard to run this strange brew of talent and malcontents. For Marbury's recent proclamations of a religious awakening over the summer, his behavior in that late night New York television interview, his flippant attitude toward humiliating personal testimony at the Isiah Thomas trial and his absurd defense of Michael Vick offer windows into an increasingly unstable act.
These days, Marbury sounds more enthusiastic about finishing his career in Italy than playing out the last two seasons of his bloated Knicks contract. If he has found that peace in his life, well, good for him. With Marbury, though, it's no longer about telling us, but showing us. Every year he talks about some kind of an epiphany – professional or personal – and it isn't long until he's playing the fool again. In so many ways, Marbury is the quintessential extension of Madison Square Garden's corporate chaos playing out on the basketball court.
2. Can the Wizards spare themselves from the acrimony within?
Relations haven't been strong between Washington Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld and coach Eddie Jordan for some time now, and a slow start to the season could only add strain to the dynamic. What's more, Jordan and star Gilbert Arenas have been at odds, too. The coach has urged Arenas to be a complete player, pushing past his World B. Free persona with stronger doses of defense and leadership.
It's a shame this subplot has disrupted what should be considered one of the great basketball renaissances in the league under Grunfeld and Jordan. They've done terrific jobs reshaping Washington into a perennial playoff team and hot ticket in D.C. Grunfeld landed Arenas as a free agent and acquired Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison in one-sided trades. Jordan has brought out the best in all of them.
It seems ludicrous that the Wizards wouldn't embrace the success and stability this front office and coaching regime has brought them, but there's such a tenuous feel to it all.
3. Is Rodney Stuckey as good as we think he is?
Between the Detroit Pistons' 2007 playoff run and the past summer with Team USA, there were times guard Chauncey Billups appeared like his advancing years were grinding on his game. So yes, it's a heartening revelation that those around Pistons training camp can't stop talking about the way Stuckey has incorporated himself into this veteran core. The rookie guard's curve should be steeper out of small-school Eastern Washington, but G.M. Joe Dumars knew all along that he might have the steal of last June's draft at No. 15.
There's little doubt that Stuckey will be the long-term heir to Billups, but how about the possibility that he could make an impact this season?
On a lot of levels, Cavs G.M. Danny Ferry is making a prudent financial choice to try and re-sign his restricted free agents on his own terms. Yet, you have to wonder how long these holdouts can go before LeBron James starts to lose his patience. In the past few years, bad contracts have run the Cavs' payroll higher than it needed to be, but that isn't LeBron's problem.
During the offseason, LeBron discovered once again that there isn't much trade value for his teammates and that he could be stuck with this pedestrian cast for the near future. His time with Team USA reminded James of how desperately he wants to play with elite-level talent – especially at point guard – and it's hard to imagine him thrilled about starting a season without those two teammates under contract.
Eventually, Varejao and Pavlovic must see that the overspending for players of their ilk has largely dissipated throughout the league. Ultimately, though, the price of doing business in Cleveland comes down to this: Is LeBron sold on staying for the long term?
5. Shouldn't $118 million on a Western Conference All-Star guarantee a return spot in the Eastern playoffs?
A year ago, Orlando made the playoffs largely on default. Essentially, the Magic were less dreadful than the free-falling Indiana Pacers. In the fortified Eastern Conference, you'll have to play your way into the postseason. Right now, it isn't hard to find eight teams with which a better case can be made than the Magic to stay out of the lottery.
Lewis is a great shooter, but he has yet to show himself as a great player. It will be fascinating to see if he can truly make Dwight Howard a bigger scoring threat in the low post. As much as anything, Orlando should be grateful it ended up with Stan Van Gundy over Billy Donovan. He was a terrific coach for the Heat – pre and post Shaquille O'Neal – and he took less talent than these Magic to the playoffs in his rookie season in Miami.